Artist Interview: Stefan Spiteri
Interviewed by Ann Dingli
Portrait of Stefan Spiteri
Stefan Spiteri is a Maltese artist who works mainly with painting, drawing and collage. His creative process addresses space, memory and time, exploring these themes through a “continuous layering of meaning, material and gesture”. Spiteri graduated with a Bachelor’s degree with Honours in Fine Art from MCAST Institute for the Creative Arts in 2019. In 2018, he took a three-week artist’s residency in Piedmont, Italy as one of the selected artists for the Amuse project. Previous collective shows include Points of Transition (Gabriel Caruana Foundation, Malta), 2021; Human Man-Made Traces (Malta Society of Arts, Malta), 2019; Distinct (Spazju Kreattiv, Malta) 2019; Shifting Contexts (Spazju Kreattiv, Malta), 2018. His show for Valletta Contemporary (VC), titled On the Nature of Painting, sees painting as a “microcosm of the natural world, […], transmuting energy into matter”. Spiteri discusses his views on the role of painting in contemporary art with Ann Dingli for VC.
Ann Dingli (AD): A wide canon of work comes to mind when looking at, and reading about, your work for the show at VC – from the Pre-Raphaelites to Anselm Kiefer. Do you look at other artists to inform your thinking about the nature of painting?
Stefan Spiteri (SS): When philosopher Nelson Goodman in Languages of Art says, “[t]he eye always comes ancient to its work,” he is suggesting that our ways of seeing are shaped by a long history of intricately evolved and continuously exchanged concepts.
My painting practice is inevitably influenced by a rich legacy of brilliant individuals who sought to reinvent the painting medium and who harnessed their voice to seek out order within disorderly contexts. Consequently, through patterns of subordination, these artists managed to bring well composed images to their resolution.
This body of work is analysing the temperament of the painting medium and questioning the disorderliness of the painting process, so it’s crucial for me to look at others to discover what lies within me. By this I am specifically referring to Julie Mehretu, Agnes Martin, Lee Krasner, Thomas Nozkowski, Tomma Abts, Michael Armitage and Peter Doig.
AD: Can you talk about the size of your works for this show? Nature painting historically occurs at large scale, but you've chosen relatively small dimensions for most of the works. Can you talk about that decision?
SS: The scale of the work plays a significant role. Having a series of small-scale works shown together is crucial, each painting contains the larger picture, while echoing the presence of the other paintings in the series. The small-scale emphasizes the idea of the painting acting as a microcosm of the natural world. Small scale work behaves very differently from large scale work, in both production and reception. Due to the diminutive scale of the work, the quadrilinear enclosure of the painting is given more importance, it helps draw the viewer in, making for a more intimate experience. In this series of work there is no single focal point, there is no principle of containment, and the edge of each painting is a mere physical fact. Even though the compositions are enclosed within a rectilinear enclosure, the images do not accept nor reject, they just happen to hold, whatever is placed within the frame. The image stops when it has no more ground to cover, nonetheless given the paintings’ own rambling nature, the images can go on in any direction beyond the edge of the surface.
Quadrat 7, 2021
AD: You talk about "surrendering to the nature of the painting process". This brings to mind a lineage of art theory and approaches – perhaps most glaringly, Pollock's drip painting technique, which prioritises a record of the fluid properties of paint itself over subject. How did you come to occupy this position as a painter? Is this method or ethos one that you have built up and followed throughout your practice, or have you used it solely for these works?
SS: Work of this sort may be considered as an ‘imitation of nature’ yet caution is needed here, a painter’s ‘imitation’ is not just a copy of some segment of the external world; it is a representation of a subject that, in some manner, registers a response to the natural world. So if the painter is a part of nature he/she has no need to copy or directly observe; the painter is able to work from within.
Speaking specifically about Jackson Pollock and even his wife Lee Krasner, these two painters eradicated the superiority of the observer to the observed, of artists to nature, they had the power to stand apart from the natural world. Consequently, Pollock and Krasner managed to go beyond the inherited conventions of painting and reinvented all they had known about their medium. Ultimately, they shifted from structured compositions to all-over images.
This approach towards the painting process has helped me re-evaluate my painting practice. In previous projects I had devised a very systematic way of painting, but in this body of work I tried to move away from that by listening more to the painting process and by being more sensitive to my own natural instincts. As a result, the paint is responding to an action, yet it is following its own course as determined by the surface on which it rests. This has allowed me to move beyond compositional hierarchy to looser, all-over paintings.
AD: Although you talk mainly about the relationship between the artist and the act of painting itself, you also make commentary on the natural world and humanity's place within it. Are there parallels to be drawn there?
SS: This body of work may evoke the rustling vitality of a landscape intermittently cultivated, yet the larger point of this investigation has to do not with the natural world but with the nature of painting. Even though it is common knowledge that humanity has distanced itself from its original habitat, yet at the very core we are still an integral part of the natural world; we can never escape that. The way we behave, react and adapt are attributes to other processes that take place in the natural world.
Here I am not trying to make a comment on the natural world. I am using painting as a process of coming closer to my innate origin, looking out to understand what lies within.
This led me to a realisation that the process of painting, even though artificial in its construction, in its essence is equivalent to other responses that happen within this coexistence.
AD: You discuss "the transfer of energy from lived experience into matter". In the natural world, energy is harnessed, used and exploited for human survival and profit. Are you making a comment on this transfer of energy – which really can be looked at as a transfer of power?
SS: I am glad you brought this up, even though I hadn’t mentioned this before, I believe that as a painter I am a thief, I am constantly absorbing and extracting from my immediate environment in order to create work.
I don’t particularly collect images or physical sources to support my practice. Generally, I work from memory and instinct, nonetheless for my painting practice to survive and evolve it needs to be sustained, in this case being consistently on the look-out for new possibilities to resolve a particular work, even beyond my own consciousness.
Without a doubt, I am using the natural world to my advantage here, as I stated before I am extracting proportions of the plenitude, utilizing memories of animals and plants and reassembling them together in a new world of pictorial unity. Nonetheless, I believe that the natural world isn’t something we can possess, but an entity to learn from.
AD: I believe this is one of the few, if only, solo painting exhibitions to be shown at VC since its opening. Can you talk about your views on the role of painting in contemporary art?
SS: The role of the painter today is to seek out the truth within and express it in the most untainted way possible. The finished work is ambiguous even to the maker. Even though the process of painting is highly susceptible to environmental, social and political contexts. These paintings do not allude to any specific moral themes, yet it is up to the viewer to take upon himself an active role, to provide a perspective and give this body of work meaning.
Long ago, it may have been the role of the artist/painter to give moral instruction, but today we can no longer assume a single cultural context of moral interpretation. Even though the works seem to refer to the natural world, the role of these paintings is not to help the viewer identify a grand design, but to make him aware of the subtle disorder present around us, which might have otherwise gone unnoticed.
Quadrat 3, 2021